to the Foreign Press
(Communicated by the Government Press Office)
Jerusalem, January 19, 2003
Following is a transcript of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s remarks at his press conference yesterday (Sunday), at the Government Press Office annual New Year’s toast for the foreign press corps and press attaches:
I wish to welcome you here to Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jewish people for the last 3,000 years, and the united and undivided capital of the State of Israel forever. I welcome Dan Perry, the chairman of the Foreign Press Association, members of the foreign press corps, ladies and gentlemen.
I welcome questions from the floor:
Q: Mr. Prime Minister, you have often said that Yasser Arafat must be removed from the leadership of the Palestinian people, yet Arafat remains in place and seems stronger now in his support among his own people, than before the last siege of his headquarters in September. How and when are you going to get rid of Mr. Arafat?
A: First, I don’t have to emphasize that Israel is a peace seeking country. I’ve made it very clear, many times, that for a genuine, durable and real peace Israel is willing to make painful concessions, despite the fact that Israel has never been defeated in a war. It’s a unique thing that a country is willing to give up part of its historical homeland for peace, although they have never been defeated. We have worked out a plan, together with the White House, which I would say is in principle is very close to President bush’s address in June last year. We are in agreement of the way to peace.
The only obstacle to peace is Mr. Arafat. Although many Palestinians understand very well, that Mr. Arafat is responsible for their suffering, and now I’m not speaking about our suffering, I’m only discussing the terrible situation they are living in. I think they believe that the strategy of terror adopted after the Camp David conference is the cause of their tragedy. There are people that understand and want to talk peace with us. The problem is that as long as Mr. Arafat is in power, and controls the security/terrorist organizations, it is very difficult for them to talk to us. As a matter of fact, Mr. Arafat is not becoming stronger, he is weaker. However, he is still strong enough to prevent those that are in favor of peace from speaking out publicly. Even the contact that we have with those Palestinians, which we do have, is all carried out secretly, in order not to endanger their lives. A despot will murder someone who does not agree with their views, so at the least, he is being ignored, at least by the US and by us.
When the rest of the world understands how much damage he is causing, they will also ignore him and the process will be accelerated at a much faster level. I would like to start negotiations now, but of course, one cannot negotiate under fire and Mr. Arafat is not taking any steps against terror. So the process will not be short, but we will succeed and I’m fully convinced that that day will come.
Q: Mr. Prime Minister, I have two questions, with your permission. The first is everyone is talking about preparations for war with Iraq and we have heard a lot of what happens before the war breaks out. The question is what happens later, on the day after the war ends with Iraq. Are you worried the US will exert pressure on Israel vis-a-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict? My second question is more of a domestic one and that is, that there are reports about the fact that Mr. Dov Weisglass who is your bureau chief also happens to be a lawyer for Muhammad Rashid, Arafat’s top financial aide. If this is true, don’t you see any conflict of interest in holding these two positions at one time?
A: Let’s start with the second questions. I don’t see any conflict of interest. I think that Dov Weissglass may have had contact in the past, he no longer does today. Even if he would like to have contact, he is so busy. I make him work day and night, so, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about, the attorney general made it clear, and he is acting according to the rules and I would like to say that you don’t have to worry about it.
Regarding the first question. I don’t see any danger of being under any pressure. Israel is a peace seeking country. We were willing to make big concessions. I can’t think of any other country in the world, which hasn’t lost a war, and is willing to make such painful concessions for a genuine and durable peace. We have done that, and I am ready to do that. When I form the government, which I very much hope will be a national unity government, I believe strongly in a national unity government, I think it’s very important, we will immediately begin to talk about political settlement, in accordance with the principles laid out in President Bush’s address last year. So there is no reason to apply pressure on Israel.
I think I’ve made it very very clear in the past, and I will repeat it, when it comes to concessions in order to reach a political solution, we will be ready to make painful concessions. When it comes to the security of Israeli citizens, and the security of the state of Israel, Israel will not make any concessions whatsoever, not now and not in the future. Therefore, I don’t see any reason for any pressure. We have excellent relations with the White House, I don’t remember such good relations with the US administration in the last 55 years. Our relationship is based on credibility. I’ve said where we are willing to make compromises, and where we are unwilling to compromise. Everything is extremely clear and we are not afraid of pressure because there is no reason to apply pressure.
Israel is a democracy, the only democracy in the Middle East, sharing the same values with the US. We stand together against terror, against local, regional and international terror and therefore I don’t see any cause for concern. We have deep friendship, that has become much stronger in the last two years.
Q: Mr. Prime Minister, what type of assistance are you going to have from the US forces? Israeli forces today began a military exercise with US forces. What kind of assistance are you going to have from the American forces in the event of an Iraqi attack?
A: We are now carrying out an exercise, which is not the first and will not be the last one, that is part of the deep strategic cooperation that exists between Israel and the US. It’s an exercise. All in all, I’m fully convinced that the US made the correct conclusions from the last war in the Persian Gulf, as we learnt our lessons. We cannot compare the equipment that exists now, to that that was available then. It is much improved, and although as you know, we are not involved in the war, and we understand the sensitivity of the situation in the Middle East. We are not urging the US to start or postpone, we understand the importance of the US being the leader of the free world, fighting terror and we deeply appreciate President Bush’s leadership in the war against terror.
I believe that the US will take all the necessary steps, as Israel will, in order to avoid an attack on Israel. I think that everyone understands that, and that that is what will happen. We believe that there is a danger but we have taken all the precautions, and Israel is ready and well organized for every eventuality. I don’t believe Israel will be attack, but we are still taking all the precautions to avoid the danger.
Q: You were quoted in Newsweek for saying that you don’t care about the quartet, now there has been a clarification today coming out of your office, but my feeling was that that clarification was for the Americans here, could you come with a clarification for the Europeans here?
A: Thank you for your question. We issued today an announcement which I would like to repeat. In the quartet forum, which the US and other countries are a party to, Israel and the US see eye to eye on the proper interpretation and the recommended methods of implementation of President Bush’s speech, which I said before, was accepted by us, unlike other members, and therefore in Israel’s opinion, the American and Israeli viewpoint is the sole practical interpretation that can bring about peace in the Middle East. That is our position. There are several members, all are very important, and one of those members, I would say the most important one, and Israel, see eye to eye on the correct solution. I think that the plan we mapped out, provides the real answer and the only way to reach a real political settlement to the conflict we have been facing now for over 120 years.
Q: Mr. Prime Minister, you’ve come out in favor of a Palestinian state, as has President Bush. Are you sincere about that? What kind of state could it be from a territorial standpoint and would such a state be able to coexist with Israel?
A: In answer to your question, I would like to tell you that what I say – I mean, and what I mean – I say. We have three phases to reach an agreement. The first stage talks about complete cessation of terror and violence, that is a precondition for any move forward. The second phase is where each side has to do something, say in the case of the Palestinians, they have to act against terror. They must arrest, interrogate and imprison terrorists, their commanders, their supporters and those that instigated murders. That is the second phase where I would say they must dismantle terrorist organizations, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front, Democratic Front and of course all the security/terrorist organizations, they are all involved in terror, they must be dismantled. The third thing they must do, is to collect all illegal weapons, to hand it over to a third party and destroyed. Then I would say they must educate towards peace, and of course complete cessation of incitement.
Israel at the same time, should take upon itself to create continuity in order to enable the Palestinians to use their own roads, and then if there is complete quiet, and there is a full cessation of violence and terrorist activities, Israel will be ready to recognize a non-military, fully demilitarized Palestinian state without final borders. I want to emphasize that I made these statements at a time when other people would not have said such things, for instance, during the period of the primaries. I made these statements, at the most difficult time for me and therefore I’m sincere.
What I mean by fully demilitarized I mean that there would only be a police force, with light weapons, and no military industry. We will control the outer borders. They will not be allowed to make alliances with any of Israel’s enemies. These are hard conditions, but we are ready to do it, and I am fully sincere, otherwise I would not have made the statements. I said it before the elections, at the most sensitive time and I repeated it again and again, so that no-one will be able to say afterwards that I did something I had not warned I was planning to do. Therefore, I am sincere. The problem is whether we are going to have someone to talk to or not. As long as Mr. Arafat is there, it is hard to assume that a Palestinian will stand up and be ready to discuss and talk.
Q: Mr. Prime Minister, in Europe it’s not understood that the Iraqi war is a just war. So what is your opinion on this, as you know the UN envoy has not found any smoking gun up till now and there are several other reasons why the Europeans don’t agree with the war. So I would like to know if you do or don’t and what is your opinion?
The second question is about the rise of strong anti-Semitism in Europe. Do you think it’s an important phenomena? Do you think something should be done by European governments, would you suggest something to the European governments on this matter?
A: May I start with the second question? We are eyewitness to anti-Semitism that spreads very fast. The Jews have their own experience, although we do not live in the world that existed 60 years ago, I would like to say that anti-Semitism is one of the greatest dangers, not only for us. I would say that the Jews gradually, that is the goal of my government, is to bring 1,000,000 Jews to Israel in the next 10 – 20 years. I hope that by 2020 the majority of the Jewish people will be living in Israel. But, I would like to say that anti-Semitism is dangerous for the rest of the world, and not only for us. Therefore I believe that democracies should raise their voices and take all the necessary steps to stop anti-Semitism, because that is something that the world has seen already and we know what happened then.
Regarding your first question, maybe I should ask you this question. We know the regime in Iraq, and we know that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, both chemical and biological. We know that Iraq has already used chemical weapons against its own citizens, the Kurds when tens of thousands of Kurds were murdered with these weapons. Iraq had the know-how for nuclear weapons, and if it were not for the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who in 1981, took a courageous decision, and I’m very proud that I was a member of the inner cabinet then, that helped to take this decision to destroy the Iraqi nuclear reactor. If we would not have done that, as a matter of fact, the whole world criticized Israel at that time.but now everyone understands much better what would have been if Iraq had nuclear weapons.
So the question is, is it the just thing to prevent Iraq from having weapons of mass destruction? Iraq is involved in terror, and as a matter of fact they helps suicide bombers here. They pay $25,000 per family where one of the sons has committed suicide and killed people. They try to organize terror groups here in Israel, and they try to smuggle weapons over here. We can see now a Libyan scientists and technicians, and we know that Libya is working on creating a nuclear weapon. So I want to ask you, don’t you think that this is the right thing to do? To get rid of a leader who murders tens of thousands of his own citizens, who might bring terror to an entirely different level, where it will include using chemical and biological weapons. So I believe that we understand that the world cannot live with these dangers. Terror is not a technical issue, terror is a strategic issue. I think the free world to join together acting against terror.
Q: Mr. Prime Minister, a few years ago, a lot of people in Israel said that you had already got your political death sentence. According to polls though ahead of the elections, you’re one of the most popular prime ministers Israel has ever seen. How have you been able to change the mood among the Israeli electorate? What’s the reason behind this fundamental change in the Israeli’s view of you?
A: I think that what happened here, is that Israeli citizens understand the situation. They understand the dangers they are facing. They see the rates of terror, the number of people who were killed in the most brutal way, and we have 720 killed in two years. If you compare it proportionally with the population of the United States, it would be like having 40,000 murdered through terror in two years, and the 5,000 injured is equivalent to about 300,000 injured. Whole families disappeared, families of 7, 5, 4. Families that lost their children, children who lost their parents. They understand the situation, they understand the problems we are having.
Israel is a strong nation, very determined, very courageous, I don’t know how any other country in the world would behave with such a rate of casualties in two years. But the people here are determined, and they understand that they problems are very complicated. On the one hand, we have to fight terror, on the other we have to keep our strong and close relations and strategic cooperation with the US. I was able to create a very close relationship with President Vladimir Putin, and strategic cooperation when he dealt with terror. On the one hand you have to act, on the other hand you have to keep all those contacts…
Q: Mr. Sharon, what assurances can you give to the Palestinians that if there is a war with Iraq, Israel won’t use it as an excuse to increase Israeli troop incursions?
A: I think that there is no room for your worries. We have no intentions to do anything beyond what is necessary. I would like to tell you that if we could have stopped terror, or if they would have taken any steps against terror, I would have instructed our forces to leave those Palestinian towns. We don’t want to stay there. So, of course, you can say, who can take steps against terror? I would like you to know that in Gaza the Palestinian forces were intact. One of the reasons was that we would have had to mobilize reserves and it would have been very hard on the economy. Ultimately we decided not to take steps against the security organizations or any military forces there, in order not to give them an excuse not to act. The forces in Gaza were intact, but, I’m very sorry to say, that though maybe sometimes they wanted to take steps against Hamas and other terrorist organizations there, Mr. Arafat would not allow them to do so. So altogether we don’t have any intention to take advantage of the situation.
At the same time, we see that all Palestinian terror organizations are making a major effort at this time to carry out more attacks than ever before. I hope that they will be very careful, that during a possible war with Iraq they will be careful not to act against Israel. Last time they were dancing on the roofs when they saw the SCUDS falling on Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan and other places. But I hope that they understand, like the Syrians in the north and Hizbullah, who are equipped and controlled by the Iranians, will be very careful along the northern border. That’s what we hope, but we don’t have any intentions. If they are quiet, nothing will happen to them.
Q: Mr. Prime Minister, you have been stressing that you are a peace-seeking country. I would like to understand better how we are going to seek this peace, since this is an active process. You said that we won’t negotiate under fire, so what are you going to do? It sounds like you are waiting for peace but you’re not seeking peace. And connected to this is what you said on the roadmap, did I understand you correctly that you are saying we can throw the roadmap to the trash bin? And you have another plan with the Americans but nothing you agree on with Europe?
A: I hope you are not offended that we see eye to eye with the US. Regarding the roadmap, we accept – as a matter of fact there was a time that there were talks about the roadmap, we received a draft and we checked it and there were many changes. In general we see eye to eye with the US and not with the other members. I always envy and feel jealousy that the Europeans, and other countries in the world, have the time to deal with our problems. I wish the day will come, where there will be peace and life will be normal, then maybe I, or Israel will be able to help you solve some of your problems. Every country has a problem and as I said, I am really jealous that I cannot contribute to you in the way that you would like to contribute to us.
We do not underestimate Europe. When talking to European leaders, I have often said that I am interested in more involvement from the European side with what’s happening here. But I had one condition, I said, your attitude towards Israel and the Arabs and the Palestinians should be balanced. Once it is balanced you are more than welcome to participate. But as long as the relationship is unbalanced, I think there are many things that Europe can do, Europe can be involved in helping the Middle East, in building, construction and developing industry. But when it comes to our life we feel that we have the right to ask that countries should have an equal relationship with the Palestinians and with us. Right now, that is not the situation. We do not underestimate Europe, we have contact with Europe.
The US says that they understand (and maybe the Russians too), that in order to move the peace process forward, Mr. Arafat should be removed from his influence in security, finance and major decisions. Therefore a prime minister should be appointed in order to put a barrier between Mr. Arafat, who may stay a symbol, I don’t know what that symbol is, and the Palestinian government. The Palestinian government will then act without his influence. That is the American position, and I think that is right. He should be ignored. That is our position and I think the Russians agree. But for Europe, Mr. Arafat is the address, and as long as that is the case, it will only make the process longer. I have very deep appreciation to Mr. Blair, Mr. Chirac and all the other European countries, but at the same time they do not understand that in order to move things forward, Arafat should be removed. I hope you appreciate this position.
In any case, I want to wish you a year of success, it’s not going to be boring here, I can assure you. It’s never boring here, and life here is more intensive than any other country in the world. We hope for peace, security and prosperity for all of us.
Happy New Year. Thank you.